St. Clare Initiative:
A pioneering response to the
challenges of a diverse classroom


The Department of Catholic Schools is in year two of a professional advancement program for Catholic educators designed to help teachers gain the skills they need to help students from a spectrum of backgrounds thrive academically.

Named after a 13th-century saint revered for her bold and faith-filled response to fierce challenges, the St. Clare Initiative for Leading and Learning was launched in 2019 to help teachers and administrators provide an exceptional Catholic education to students regardless of their starting point.

“What we want to make sure we are doing is meeting every child where they are and moving them forward,” said Tara Rolle, Ph.D. associate superintendent of schools and executive director of the St. Clare Initiative. A diverse set of specialty skills is required, she said, to make Catholic education both “excellent and inclusive.”

The St. Clare Initiative currently includes four professional learning pathways for Catholic schoolteachers and administrators

Catholic schools have a responsibility to ensure that every child is appropriately challenged and supported in the classroom. To truly do that, teachers must be formed with the latest, research-driven instructional practices, Rolle said.

“We want to be open, to be inviting, to anyone who wants a Catholic education and then we need to be skilled to ensure that everyone invited, thrives,” Rolle said.

The St. Clare Initiative gives schools and individual teachers the opportunity to apply to one or more of four specialized learning pathways for professional development over a three-year period.

The intended outcome is “challenged, supported and engaged children who will blossom and grow,” Rolle said.

Response to a growing need

The St. Clare Initiative aims to deliver high-quality Catholic education at all archdiocesan schools regardless of individual school demographics, teacher turnover and shifts in leadership.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools Pamela Lyons said a 2017-18 Department of Catholic Schools needs analysis revealed that some teachers and administrators felt that acquiring specialized skills would help them better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse set of learners in their classrooms.

“We had schools that wanted to work on their English language arts program to raise their students’ reading scores,” said Lyons. Others wanted to do additional work around meeting the needs of all learners, including high-capacity or academically advanced students.

Schools ‘opt-in’ for specialized skill-building

While there is a certain level of excellence expected from every school in the archdiocese, said Lyons, “some schools want to go above and beyond that.”

She and her associate superintendents challenged themselves to find a way to support teachers and schools that wanted professional skill development in specific areas. They ultimately decided to design their own model rather than outsource it.

“We understand distinctly the needs of our schools,” said Rolle. “And it was really important to us that it was Catholic. We felt like everything we do about academic formation had to be done in concert with faith formation.”

St. Clare became a “natural namesake” for the model at the suggestion of Lyons, who had recently been to Assisi where she learned more about the saint. She felt St. Clare embodied the brave spirit of an initiative that she hopes will act as a “bold light for the future of Catholic education.” (see inset)

“Pam felt very inspired by this idea of being bold, which St. Clare certainly was,” said Rolle of the saint who left her wealthy family to embrace the evangelical poverty of St. Francis and who is credited with stopping Saracen invaders from overtaking the city-state of Assisi.

“St. Clare stood at the threshold of great threats armed only with her faith,” Rolle said. “If we could be inspired by her relentless and persistent faith that would serve us well.”

Rolle put together a “very intensive” professional development program offered in a “cohort” model that invites schools or individuals to apply to optional skill development programs amounting to about 50 hours a year over three years. A cohort is any group of schools or individuals who have enrolled in a particular learning pathway and who work closely together.

These schools are involved in one or more school or individual cohorts of the St. Clare Initiative: Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, St. Veronica School, St. Raymond School, St. Charles School, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Our Lady of Mercy School in San Mateo County; St. Anselm School and St. Raphael School in Marin County; Our Lady of the Visitacion School, School of the Epiphany, St. John School and St. Vincent de Paul School in San Francisco County.

“It’s a lot of extra work,” said Lyons of the initiative that was rolled out, as luck would have it, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Most coursework remains on Zoom. The school cohort pathways are offered at no charge to the schools that choose to enroll.

Four learning pathways

The St. Clare Initiative currently includes four professional learning pathways for Catholic school teachers and administrators: Two school cohorts, where the entire school is enrolled in the program, and two certificate cohorts, where individuals from Catholic schools are enrolled. They are:

–Literacy 360

– Instruction for All Learners

– Catholic Administrative Services Certificate

– Student Performance Data Analytics Certificate

Literacy 360

Literacy 360 was designed to result in high-intensity instruction to advance literacy development in high-priority school communities. These are K-8 schools that serve student populations with limited home access to print materials in English and/or where the predominant language exposure in the home and community is in a language other than standard English.

Literacy 360 innovates the approach to English language arts instruction to respond to the heightened need for intensive and focused literacy development.

Rolle provided a data point from the most recent Renaissance STAR Reading Assessments to illustrate what appears to be the effectiveness of skills developed in this cohort, now in its second year.

“The participating schools opened this school year (2021-22) with, on average, a 237 Lexile point increase in reading scores in grades 3-5 over the opening of school scores last year,” said Rolle.

The Lexile Framework for Reading is a scientific approach to reading and text measurement. A Lexile reader measure represents a person’s reading ability on the Lexile scale.

In addition, she said, the class average Lexile scores for grades 6-8 now exceed the college and career readiness indicators.

Instruction for all learners

This cohort, also in its second year, is designed to promote instructional strategies that meet the needs of the high-achieving student, the average student and the student with learning differences.

St. Raphael School principal Lydia Collins said the professional development has helped teachers “be more explicit about what they are teaching, why it is important and what they expect students to know at the end of the lesson.”

She said some of her teachers have told her that they are becoming better teachers.

“My assessments are better aligned with what I am teaching,” said one.

Collins said the St. Clare training encourages teachers to do informal assessments or check-ins at the end of a lesson and to leave time to help those who did not quite understand.

Collins said she visits classrooms for a short period of time and asks students what they are learning, why it’s important and how they know they understand it.

“I have never had a better sense of the learning going on in the school than I do now with the data that I have been collecting,” said Collins. “We still have work to do but I can feel the shift in teaching and learning.”

Student Performance

Data Analytics Certificate

A certificate program is offered in this cohort designed to help educators make data-informed decisions in creating plans for the school and students, steering both in the right direction.

“Data-informed findings help create attainable and needed goals that increase teaching effectiveness, find areas of strength and growth, and save schools money when they have a data-backed direction,” said St. Anselm School principal Kim Orendorff, a member of this cohort.

Future Leaders Academy (Catholic Administrative Services Certificate)

A key part of the St. Clare Initiative is the development of future Catholic school leaders.

“We asked, how do we take charge of the way we want our leaders formed and informed to charge Catholic education forward?” Lyons said of the St. Clare Initiative’s Catholic Administrative Services Certificate. The answer was developing a comprehensive, K-8 leadership preparation program built on the standards for the California Administrative Services Credential, but with modifications and additions for proper preparation of leaders in the Catholic school context.

“Being a leader in a Catholic school is very different than being a leader in a public school,” she said.

From Initiative to Institute?

The vision is for the St. Clare Initiative for Leading and Learning to develop into the St. Clare Institute for Leading and Learning, becoming a permanent professional resource to Catholic teachers and leaders in northern California, Rolle said.

“That would allow us to really scale beyond the archdiocese to our larger community of Catholic schools,” said Rolle. “We have an interest in serving and supporting the broader Catholic school community. But first we want to make sure we’ve met the needs of our archdiocesan schools.”

“We have a lot of ideas to grow the St. Clare Initiative,” said Lyons.


Christina Gray is lead writer, Catholic San Francisco, [email protected]